When the diggers come for your town square, will you know why?

Let me tell you about Saffron Walden, the town closest to where I live. The town council decided that the market square – the place where for decades, even centuries, market traders have plied their wares a couple of times a week – needed a makeover.

This puzzled me. There was nothing wrong with the market square. Cars could park there (on non-market days). People could walk through it on their way to the banks, the library, the shops (though one big department store at the top of the square shut down when its landlord moved to increase its rent; sayonara, the shop replied. Sure hope that landlord can make money from fresh air). As squares go, this one rocked.

But no: what it really needed, some part of the council decided, was to have the fountain in the middle prettied up with some lights, and dig up the road a bit. Don’t ask me why. I didn’t see anything about it in the local papers – freesheets – until it was a fait accompli.

For example this from the Saffron Walden Reporter, which quotes “Cabinet member for highways and transportation, Cllr Norman Hume”. Here’s what he said:

“This scheme will help to breathe new life into a great town centre in Essex enhancing its appearance and making it more user-friendly.

“We know from feedback from our residents how important local market towns to our communities, particularly at these times of economic uncertainty, and we want to do everything we can to help our local businesses attract more shoppers.

“We have worked hard to minimise any inconvenience caused by these works and no shops will need to close because of these works, but I would apologise for any disruption in advance”.

And if you want to know where those quotes came from – were they dug up by an effortful reporter trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on? Perhaps. Or perhaps they came from the same place as this council announcement, since it contains exactly the same words in exactly the same order.

Oh, you call it “disruption”? As a corollary of prettying up the fountain, the market traders had to move out of the market so the works could proceed. They’d have to move right out of the area where the shops and footfall is, to the common about 200 yards away. No shelter, exposed to the elements, and not in a place where people in the normal course of their other shopping would go.

This is of course exactly what you wish for as a market trader: to be removed from the place where hundreds of people will walk past, to somewhere with lousy weather and no people so that a fountain can get a cosmetic do-up.

Early reports suggested they’ve seen a 50% falloff in trade.

And for the shops that line the road into the market square, things aren’t much better. Digging up the square involves closing the roads feeding it. Fewer people can park their cars; fewer people shop. For a market town dependent on people buying discretionary items, that’s not good. Hell, even the places selling food, such as the deli, have seen business fall. People aren’t coming through.

OK, so now I want to know: how the hell did the council think this was a good idea? It’s killing its own revenue source – these traders. More to the point, where were the newspapers that could have made some sort of noise about this? Where are the people like – let’s be honest – me, who love nothing better than causing a bit of trouble by asking difficult questions of powerful people (a trait I first noticed in myself back in school which has never gone away)? Why did such an obviously stupid idea ever get any sort of approval? Did some dolt councillor stand up and say “I know – there’s a recession on. Let’s make things harder for the shops! Woolworths has closed, and that other one. But I won’t be happy until all the lights are out”? And did all the others turn with a sudden realisation that this was indeed what the town needed – fewer shops?

It’s a failure of community – and newspapers ought to be the things making that community realise its values and what decisions cost it. I don’t know of any websites that might have the local “news”; you can talk about microblogging and local websites, but nobody pushes a website through my door. The local freesheets – well, those are a lot easier to pick up.

You won’t find it at the council website. It doesn’t have a search engine, but we’ve always got Google. But that turns up nothing useful either.

Yet the local councillors are all scared of negative exposure in the papers, and will do anything to get a favourable mention (including writing bitchy letters about each others’ political doings which they cc to all the local freesheets). The trouble is that the papers don’t have enough heft in their reporting – and nothing like the bloody-mindedness – to find out what’s going on and expose it. I wonder if they’re scared that if they criticise the council too heftily they’ll either have a libel suit (indefensible; the cost would be ruinous) or of scaring away local advertisers for seeming too aggressive? Yet I’d read – hell, I’d buy – a paper that I felt had the same interests as me, of trying to stop stupid ideas going ahead without consultation.

Item: the council (not sure if it was town or county; suspect the former) wanted to remove the traffic lights at one end of town and put them in the other. This would have caused huge tailbacks and pollution at the residential end of the town. Residents weren’t consulted. Only a huge protest by them – including pictures on front page of paper – got the decision put on hold.

Item: Uttlesford, the council which runs Saffron Walden, found a million-pound black hole in its accounts a year or so ago; the bottom of that one hasn’t been reached.

Item: The black hole then grew when it turned out that some of the council money had been deposited in an Icelandic bank. Wasn’t that clever. Not much has been heard since about the money. Again, it’s just too easy for the council to clam up.

This is the sort of loss of local democracy, or more specifically oversight, that is really at risk with the death of newspapers. Should I have a Google alert set up for “Saffron Walden”? But that won’t take me to the council minutes – and anyway, it’s what’s not in the minutes that counts. The backroom deals (such as, I dunno, prettying up fountains with money provided under section 104 106 of the Planning Act by, I dunno, do property developers provide money?) don’t get minuted.

Who’s going to go to the meetings where they come up with idiot plans like these and ask tough questions? Who’s going to buy their ink by the barrel and keep asking in 140-point headlines where the hell council taxpayers’ money is? Who?

Which brings us, roundaboutly, to Tom Watson (not the ministerial one), who does some Ink-Stained Retching:

Crowdsourcing journalism is all the rage, but the idea of its widespread ascendancy and competence is the exclusive province of either deranged optimists or ideological cyberlibertarians; the vast populace will never produce great journalism – or even sufficient journalism of the kind that has nurtured our republic – any more than it will perform surgery on a widespread amateur basis, or turn out competent oil paintings by the millions.

Yup. And:

A network of thousands and thousands of young reporters taking notes and asking tough questions – and then writing up their reports in public, for the public – at thousands and thousands of school board and town council meetings on gray Tuesday evenings all around the nation will begin to fade.

Which goes circularly back to a Spokane Review editorial which asks:

“So as newspapers die, it’s worth considering the effects on society. Who will tell the people what their institutions are doing? Who will ferret out the corruption? Who will fend off the legal challenges to public information? If no viable alternative emerges, what does that mean for our representative democracy?

Back to Watson:

I was talking with James Wolcott about this earlier this week and he made a great point – who’s going to churn out all those important but relatively small-scale exposes on bad government contracts and neighborhood graft, the kinds of pieces regularly published by the tabloids and small city dailies? As Bob Stein writes, apropos of reporting’s demise: “For journalism, the goal has never been cosmic verities but everyday truth.”

The everyday truth in Saffron Walden? People who run shops and market stalls are starting to get worried about whether they can cover their bills, because the council did a stupid, mindless, thoughtless thing and nobody stood up quickly and loudly enough to point out that it was a stupid, mindless, thoughtless idea that would hurt peoples’ livelihoods during a brutal recession. I’m not holding my breath for the leader of Saffron Walden’s town council to appear on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, either.

How about you? How are things in your town? Would you be surprised if you turned up in the market square and found it being ripped up by diggers? Sure, as “Bruce” observes in the comments to Watson’s post, you know about the iPhone getting cut and paste, and you’ve got an opinion about the new Facebook UI. Now tell us how much you know what’s being done with your money a mile down the road.

And while you’re here, can I interest you in a subscription to a newspaper website? Local? Regional? National? And will you be paying by credit card or PayPal?


  1. Charles – Nice though it would be to believe that a local paper with good reporters would have written up the scandal of the impact of refurbishing the Saffron Walden fountain, the reality is different. Local papers in cities do not even cover corruption in high office – and even most national papers do not appear to have any investigative reporters any more. The Daily Telegraph no longer investigates. I have one case where ongoing fraud involving a famous local Liverpool firm of solicitors was reported by me in early December 2008 to an officer nominated by the Chief Constable as being a trustworthy fraud investigating officer in his Criminal Enterprise Team of the Merseyside Force Crime Operations Unit. The officer e-mailed that he would consider the evidence (which is fully documented) and would revert to me “by mid-January”. Needless to say no action has taken place. Two weeks ago I filed the same evidence at the City of London Fraud squad who have a national role in fraud investigation. The officer I saw wrote to me two days ago saying “I have reviewed the file and prepared a report for my DCI to consider. On the basis of this they will decide if it is to be investigated, based on the acceptance criteria. You will receive a letter in due course.” Their “acceptance criteria” – contains the get out that a crime is not investigated if it is a “Case where another police force has decided not to investigate other than for geographical reasons.” http://tinyurl.com/d6r7u7 So I am not holding my breath.

  2. Insightful post. I’m 21 and wouldn’t dream of buying the local paper (actually any paper other than the 25p broadsheets from the students union). I subscribe to the RSS feeds where they exist but it’s not close to the same thing.

    It’s hard to see what the best option here is. I don’t think local papers will suffer as much as the nationals and magazines precisely because people can’t get local news off the internet. That said, as my generation grows up there may be problems. One can only hope that the best of the local bloggers make a wise decision to merge, forming a local news website. It could potentially bring enough revenue from local adverts to pay salaries which would hopefully lead to better quality reporting.

    Still, worrying issues.

  3. Hi Charles,

    I can really relate to the ‘community’ issues you are talking about – shops shutting, town council rubbish, areas of town being dug up for no reason without consultation (wrote about it in my blog a while back).

    However where I live we are lucky enough to have an excellent local paper that is very much on the side of the community. Not only that the team from the paper are young, enthusiastic and interested in technology. They have a Web site (not that much cop) but better still they have a Facebook area where lots of discussion takes place. Actually Facebook seems to be where things are happening on a community level (and Yahoo groups with sites like Freecycle and local ‘cafes’). I Twitter for work but use Facebook (or did till they recently changed it) for local things.


  4. Our local paper has grown more and more like the Sun! If it can run a lurid headline it will, and not really care about the person behind that headline!
    It splashes stories across the front page that would be more worthy of a trashy Woman’s mag. Who is digging up the market square has no interest to them!
    They’ve lost touch with local issues.

  5. I’m not convinced the demise of the local papers has much to do with the rise in blogging, in all honesty. That I recall, the vast majority of local papers that I’ve come across have been complete rubbish for years—and usually containing more inches of adverts (and adverts thinly disguised as articles) than anything else.

    And by one measure, you’ve done exactly what the local rags you lament the passing of should have—you’ve written about it here, and I bet more people will come to know about it as a result of that as compared to if there was a front-page piece in the Saffron Walden Chronicle (or what have you). Now, you are a journalist… but would you have written the meat of this post if you weren’t? Lots of bloggers out there would have, after all.

    The crowdsourcing rule is one of the blunt instrument: instead of one or two skilled people who do something for a living, take an aggregate of a thousand or so people who aren’t and don’t. Chances are, the results will be comparable because there’s a more organic review process involved. It’s always a gamble, though—there are articles out there on Wikipedia which aren’t nearly as good as Britannica (though if you care that much, you shouldn’t be using either, really); journalists get scoops that bloggers don’t all the time; and so on.

    The fact is, it’s not really an either/or. A lot of local newspapers are dying not because they’re in direct competition with the Internet in term of journalism, but because time is increasingly limited for most people, and for those people, the freely-available (and ad-supported) sources online are both convenient and “good enough” for most purposes. You (and Tom) are correct in that this comes at a price, but my experience is that local journalism got devalued a long time ago.

    The curious thing is that the make-up of my Twitter following list is a mixture of local, national and international people. My feed ends up being a aggregation of crowdsourced news and gossip and paid journalism (or links to it), all in one place. By nature, the likelihood of me finding out about what Renfrewshire Council are up to down the road from me (or in my case, in what was the playing fields our property backs on to) while simultaneously reading about Apple’s latest mobile OS preview and the state of the financial markets today are actually pretty high, and *far* higher than they would be if I had to go out and pick up a copies of the Paisley Daily Record, Wired, the Guardian and the FT on a regular basis and read through them.

    I don’t think any of this answers the questions raised, really, but it’s food for thought. Maybe newspapers should form paid local blogger networks and aggregate the content (the BBC does regional stuff fairly well, excepting NOL’s sometimes dubious reporting). Maybe there’s money to be made in providing customised feeds of content in exchange for a fee. Maybe the future’s in iPhone applications. I honestly don’t know.

  6. Well, as you so robustly criticise your local press, possibly with foundation and possibly without, let’s at least make sure your facts are right.

    The decision to “revamp” the market square in Saffron Walden was not made by the Town Council. It is a Highways Agency project managed by Essex County Council. And partly paid for by section 106 money. Not section 104.

    Not only did the local papers- I get all three of them myself at home- cover the story, they did so at quite some length.

    If you are worried about the demise of your local papers, my advice to you would be get involved and tip them off about stories rather than slagging them off.

    If you hadn’t noticed the regional press is undergoing excruiating cutbacks, and not supporting the papers in your area only adds to the chance that your local title or titles will close, thus solving your problem- nothing left to complain about.

  7. I can say exactly why there are problems with some local newspapers not covering stories properly. Stuffing levels have been cut to the bone.

    If you’re expected to produce 30 pages of news a week with two people (reporter and sub), you do not have the time to investigate properly and become a churnalist.

    It’s a shame upon the industry and horrifies journalists who want to, and do, better.

    Just see the news each week on holdthefrontpage. It’s a world of centralised subbing, “multi-media content gatherers” and job losses.

  8. Charles

    Wednesday 18 March 2009 at 3:09 pm

    @”Walden resident” – obliged for your input. (Intrigued by your visit. Especially as your IP resolves to “Cambridge News Ltd” based in Cambridge.) That it’s a Highways Agency project doesn’t make it a fait accompli either: the Town Council must be able to veto it, or at least fight it. And ah, S106. That’s what I meant. (I’ll tweak the post.)

    As for tipping the papers off – I have done, in the past, for example over early NCP proposals to make the Audley End car park payable only through NCP, not via the ticket office. (NCP reversed rather quickly. Within the day.)

    And yes, I have noticed that the regional and local press are undergoing cutbacks. I work at The Guardian, and I sit in the midst of the Media desk… but my point here is about what’s happening now, and in general.

  9. Charles, while the article you link to does read like a lamentably lazy copy and paste press release job, the Saffron Walden Reporter has actually reported exactly the same concerns you mention.
    It splashed on traders’ concerns on February 19, reporting their complaints that a 50% rent rebate wasn’t good enough. It’s also run other articles and letters on the subject, and had an online poll on whether the work should go ahead (55% said it should). You can read full past editions of the paper online here.
    The paper also carried the public notice from the county council advertising the work – a service to residents and a valuable revenue source for papers that is increasingly under threat.
    A lot of local papers are far from perfect – I can’t explain why the story on work starting didn’t reflect the earlier brouhaha, for one – but you’ve picked a bad example in this case.
    (By the way, to save you hunting for my IP I work for Archant, which publishes the Reporter, although I’m based in our Norfolk offices – and here via your Twitter feed rather than any desire to trace dissenters…)

  10. I think there is also an element of new people. It seems everyone is moving to new areas, villages and towns. I think traditional communities have broken down. Newbies don’t really care or understand the impact certain things have in their area, they are a growing number, and lack of press just reflects this.

  11. Hmm, not sure I agree with this in its entirety. Here in my town, residents mounted a noisy campaign against one particularly boneheaded set of council proposals. The local paper’s coverage was patchy; even the recruitment of celebrity supporters couldn’t stir them to action. We were told, off the record, that the paper didn’t want to jeopardise its productive working relationships with local councillors. Also worth noting that the council pays for half the job ads in the local paper…

    We did get some great coverage in Private Eye though!

  12. When I read the headline I thought perhaps you were talking about the 1700s agrarian levelers, resurrected and coming to your town square. And I imagined them marching through London and up the M11, and I wondered why.

    Oh, the reason the Council thought it was a good idea to dig up the road and pretty up the fountain is the same reason most art is rubbish. Art is difficult to do well, and most attempts fail. Good decisions are difficult to make and most attempts fail.

  13. Welcome to Robert Tressell’s Mugsborough!

    In Hastings, our local council sold off the management rights to the pier – only for the offshore holding company to vanish once a maintenance bill was served. Currently the pier is closed and crumbling into the sea.

    St Mary in the Castle, a church building, was converted by the council into an Arts Centre. They then sold off the management …

    The White Rock Theatre, a listed 1930s Pavillion building is managed by HQ Theatres.

    The Hastings University was established in the “old” telephone exchange. It was then handed to Brighton University to manage its’ syllabus …

    The County cricket ground was sold off to private developers to turn into a shopping centre. It is privately run by the Priory Meadow management committee …

    The latest little scheme is to remove the old, period, flagstones and “traffic calm” all sorts of protrusions into the seafront. Once this dangerous series of chicanes is finally built and new parking prohibitions are in place (60p for every 20 minutes) there will be nowhere for tourists to bring their cars to spend the day at the seaside. They could try the coach park – but the Jerwood Art Gallery (a privately run source of inward investment, allegedly) is about to built on the Stade! The new coach area will be located in St Leonards, in an area in need of regeneration ever since the outdoor Lido was bulldozed. Unfortunately, it is also 4 miles from the Town centre shopping and 6 miles from the historic “Old Town”.

    No-one knows where the old flagstones have gone for reclaimation …

    Finally there is the train station. The Hastings terminus was converted into a glass foyer, which overheats to scalding temperatures in the summer. Hastings Borough Council has the perfect solution; they have built a six-storey concrete monolith next door, which blocks out all of the natural sunlight. Oh, in case you haven’t guessed, the money for the 16+ college came via SEEDA as part of the Town Centre regeneration project. Hastings College is governed by an independent management company …